Sunday, 13 March 2011

'No Inmigrante' or 'On Immigration'

Since November last year I have a card with my name, photo and fingerprint on it, bearing the legend "No Inmigrante" below "Estados Unidos Mexicanos". You might call this is my residency visa. It allows me to live and work in Mexico at least until next November. It defines my status as a visiting foreigner, but the reality is I have been an immigrant since August 2009, first working illegally, then working semi-legally, and now, as of January 2011 working fully legally and paying taxes.

I have been a tourist, backpacker, aimless traveller on many occasions and for some considerable portion of my life. But I was aware, moving to Mexico in 2009, that this was the first time I would become an immigrant. It has afforded me an interesting perspective on life and the lives of immigrants and helped me to provide an answer to the big, unanswered question of WHY I am living in Mexico.

While I am daily moving closer to being the kind of international type that is generally despised by Brits (I live over here away from the mother country, paying taxes to a foreign government, speaking to my cat, named Lady Gata, alternately in Spanish and English [English more often when I'm angry with her, Spanish if she's good]), the people who know me well will probably understand that I am an avowed nationalist. By that, I mean that I love to understand the world and it's people through the prism of nations and nationalities. Yes, it's pleasant to view the people of the world as all essentially the same, divided accidentally by birthplace. Yes, there's good and bad everywhere. But the fact remains that much of people's habits, behavior, thought processes, and above all, language, is conditioned by their nationality. These differences are expressed in countless levels of day-to-day activity, from governmental actions, laws to cups of tea, coffee and cuisine.

As an immigrant, I am daily made aware of my nationality. And I don't generally get bored of it. My students, my friends, and complete strangers expect a typical Englishman, and for the most part I am pleased to give them one. I drink tea. I love soccer and cricket. I generally call "soccer" "football", except when I want to be absolutely sure to avoid confusion. I am much more reserved, private and phlegmatic than the average Mexican. Life is made fun by these differences. I have a never-ending supply of small talk, based around national differences in climate, food, culture; and English football. My otherness is a thing I enjoy.

As well as being a foreigner, I am also an ethnic minority in Mexico. That is to say that my physical, racial characteristics are different to the majority of the population of this country. When I get on the bus, it is immediately obvious that I am a foreiger. A Venezuelan friend of mine here doesn't have the same experience. So before a stranger can ascertain my nationality, my ethnicity is obvious. This is not as fun as the nationality part.

For detailed historical reasons that I can't fully convey here (or probably anywhere) the average Mexican has certain distinct prejudices about white people. I say I can't convey the history at work here fully, but that doesn't mean I won't try to convey it partially... Here: Since Cort├ęs arrived in 1521, the history of Mexico has followed a pattern of repeated interference from white foreigners. The Spanish brought western civilisation and Catholicism to Mexico and founded the race of mestizos. So without Spain there is no Mexico. But the Spanish defeated the Aztecs in a cruel and unusual way involving some biological warfare and a lot of flagrant dishonesty. They then oppressed indigenous Mexicans as virtual slaves for centuries while keeping all power in the hands of "pure-blood" Spaniards. Later, the USA invaded Mexico in a war that many American politicians of the time (including a young A. Lincoln) described as blatantly unjust and aggressive. The USA annexed around half of the territory of Mexico (Texas, California, Arizona etc). Since that time the USA has been able to profit from Mexico's oil reserves and cheap labor, mainly to the benefit of wealthy Mexicans only. But conversely, US companies provide hundreds of thousands of jobs to Mexico, enriching the economy. The US has also sportingly absorbed much of Mexico's overflowing population. If you ask 20 lower-middle to upper-middle class Mexicans (as I have), 19 have a brother, sister, cousin or aunt who lives in the states. Fifteen have visited the US. Twelve loved it. Four have been to Disneyland. American TV, movies and music entertain millions of Mexicans.

All of the above creates a tapestry of conciousness about white foreigners (part negative, part positive) that comes into play as soon as I walk down a street, get a bus, hail a taxi or buy a sandwich. This is the part that is less fun. Many people are very welcoming, and go out of their way to be polite to the different person, but more people are cold or standoffish. Either way, being judged before you open your mouth on a routine basis is tiring. It changes you psychologically. Perhaps there is a desire to belong to the whole, to slightly envy the Mexicanness of Mexicans that makes things easier for them. But mostly it makes you a bit less trusting of others and a bit more defensive,

When a stranger is rude to me over here, my instinct is that there is racism at work. Sometimes I will be right. But I have to remind myself that in many cases, this individual will be rude to anyone, regardless of the colour of his skin. I shouldn't feel offended, then, as an ethnic. But it's very hard, if not impossible, not to treat every occasional piece of brusque treatment as a slice of discrimination, when you always have in your mind, walking down the street, getting on a bus, hailing a taxi, that you are unavoidably different from other people.

It's almost needless to say that this perspective applies to situations other than British immigrants in Mexico.

But is this perspective WHY I came to Mexico? Of course not. But maybe just the fact of being an "other" goes some way to answering the question. As a student I lived in Edinburgh for three excellent years. In Edinburgh I was something of an outsider, as an Englishman and a Londoner. Perhaps that was the beginning of my love for seeing myself as an outsider, distanced from the place where I live, and carrying in me the idea of where I come from and communicating that to others in the way I choose.

It could be that, or maybe I just love Mexican food, Mexican weather, and teaching English. Certainly, this is closer to the answer I give to the people who (often) ask me WHY I live in Mexico.